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Like Petals from the Bough

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It was only by the accumulation of dust that she knew how long it had been.

Eliard’s grandson, called Trist after his great-aunt, had built the tower as a place for her to come, or Morgon to come. There should always be a place in Hed for you , he had said, and surely his descendants had kept their word, for here it was.

Slowly, Raederle moved around the room, her fingers trailing through the inch-thick dust. As she made contact with the little trinkets scattered around the room, memories bloomed in her mind. This one, a piece of coral she had found, grown around a black pearl half the size of her fist. This other a music box Morgon had made, that still played, when she wound the stiff handle, a fragment of an old tune he had written for her. There were more, many more, set on the bedside tables, on the old oak dresser, on the windowsill. Everywhere the dust lay thick and still and silent.

She sat down on the bed. It smelled musty, and the blankets felt faintly damp beneath her hand. There was no impression in its smooth surface to suggest either she or Morgon had ever slept there, let alone together.

The moon, bone white against the blue-black sky, crept slowly down and into the narrow box of the window. Its light turned her hands and arms to steel. She has always been pale, and her time in the sea had deepened that, faded her bloom and left her fish white. Her hair, too, was white at the ends, the colour deepening to fire near her roots. How long had it been? What, now, had called her back to the world?

 

The last time she had seen Morgon, they had been attending a funeral. It was a cold, blustery day in early spring, and Herun was laying their previous Morgol to rest. The dead Morgol was set upon a bier of cedarwood and sap-filled pine. She was a rather long-faced woman, with the dark skin of western Herun and reddish hair that suggested family from An. Her daughter looked little enough like her, apart from the colour of their skin. She was broad-faced and short, with sturdy shoulders and wide hips. Her eyes gleamed gold as she looked at her mother’s body, her most painful and potent inheritance.

Raederle did not know her name, but Morgon clearly did. He moved forward and bowed to her.

“Akinabweyen, I grieve for your mother’s passing.”

“High One,” she said, bowing to him in return. “Thank you for your condolences. Mother asked me before she died to request a harp-song from you, if it would not be too much trouble. She said to me that your harp-playing was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard.”

Morgon smiled, a long, slow, sad smile.

“It would be a great honour to play to your mother’s memory.”

The years, Raederle thought, had made him more social. Not that he would ever warm to crowds of strangers, but he had become more flexible. She wondered if the long centuries bound to the minds of the land-rulers had done that for him.

I have become less social , was the thought that followed. Standing here, talking to Akinabweyen, she felt the centuries falling across her shoulders like a shroud. How dim in her mind now was the face of Lyra, Akinabweyen’s great-great-great-grandmother. Only the glimmer of Lyra’s smile remained, the short curved crescent of it. Lyra’s voice she heard blurred in the speech of all the guests assembled, that sweet Herun accent that flowed like wine in the mouth and throat. Lyra’s laugh, she knew had been explosive, but its echoes were completely lost.

She had seen too many people die, she thought. In the first hundred years she had tried to make new friends, to tie herself into each generation as they grew. But by the time Rood’s granddaughter Raeslin was dying, her skin paper thin over bones like wilting reeds, Raederle had given up.

She wondered what Akinabweyen’s mother had been like. Raederle couldn’t remember having met her, though they must have spoken at least once, if only at the funeral of the previous Morgol. Unlike the wizards, unlike Danig and Har, the Morgols did not choose to live longer than a normal human lifespan, though Raederle felt that they must have been able to if they had wanted it.

Presumably she could choose death, too. She had no idea how she would do such a thing, but it must be possible. The Earth-Masters, her coldwater kin, had lived for endless centuries, and lived even now in the dripping darkness of Erlenstar Mountain, but most of her family had died within a single lifespan. Even Ylon had died, though that had been by choice rather than aging. But when Raederle turned and looked at the bier, she knew she would not make that choice. She wanted something, but it was not an end. Not yet.

 

She left the funeral early, and was half-asleep when Morgon came in. There was the faint scent of wine on his breath, but he wasn’t drunk. He slid into bed beside her, and without thinking she moved her head to rest on his shoulder, curling up against him. A wave of calm washed over her, potent as a sleeping spell. It was easy, in his presence, to let her worries and pains slip away from her, to lose herself in his scent, in the feel of his breathing beneath her outstretched arm.

Raederle pulled away, turning over to lie on her back and look out the window and the distant stars.

Morgon looked at her, but said nothing.

“I’m going away,” she said at last. “I need to be alone for a while.”

Morgon hesitated.

“Is it something I have done?” he said at last, his voice calm and still, not accusing or judging her.

“No. But you’re sustaining me, and I am tired of merely being sustained. I must let myself feel real grief, if I want to move through it.”

Morgon put a hand on her shoulder.

“I will be waiting, when you come back.”

The next morning she took the shape of a seagull and flew east, out over the sea until she could not see the shore. Then she folded her wings and fell, and the water closed over her.

 

Raederle must have slept, because the sunlight woke her, shining through the tower window and onto her face. She sat up and sighed, moving her stiff limbs. She could hear birds chattering outside the window, the deep squaks of crows, the light flutings of tits and finches. When she went to look out at them the scent hit her, rich warm earth and growing things. It was late spring, and the world was ripening quickly. She could see the white haze of an apple orchard in the distance, and beyond it the low roofs of Akren. There was a new building under construction near the edge of the village. It’s spindly scaffolding scratched out against the pale blue sky.

Raederle looked down at herself. Her clothes were half-rotten and full of holes, and she was barefoot. Sighing, she moved over to the chest of drawers and pulled it open. There were a few dresses inside, preserved in layers of muslin and scattered with lavender and camphor to keep away moths. She picked the plainest and put it on, trying not to notice how loosely it hung on her frame. She supposed that as she had not truly eaten in many years, a little thinness was not unreasonable. Her hair was easily dealt with - she took a scissors shaped like a crane she found lying on the mantlepiece and cut off the ragged whitened ends - but her pale skin she could not change. She left it, put on some shoes, and stepped out into the sunlight.

The warmth of it felt impossible. It sank into her skin, loosening her limbs and lending her strength. The scent hit her next, a wave of warm broken earth, drying salty seaweed and new leaves. There was nothing to smell underwater, and she had forgotten how much she had missed it.

Raederle felt something cracking inside her chest, as though she too were growing in response to the sun. There was a strange feeling unfurling in her, a sense of wonder she hadn’t felt in a long time. Part of her almost wanted to skip and hum, things she didn’t think she’d ever done, even as a child.

The walk from the tower to Akern was not a long one, but it took Raederle almost forty-five minutes, between the softness of her feet and her urge to stop and look at everything. Small white clouds glided by, blown by the sea breeze. Apple blossom scudded across her path and piled up in drifts against the low stone walls.

The centre of Akern was humming with people, the stalls of the markets crowded with fresh produce. Fat blue and silver fish lay in heaps, their eyes glazed and their mouths hanging open to reveal the delicate pink flesh inside. The vegetable stalls were equally laden down, with clusters of purple aubergines, whorls of green cabbage, baskets full of flat brown oyster mushrooms, bright pink rhubarb and paper-wrapped clusters of asparagus. Beyond them were cheese stalls, where fat wheel wheels sat in their linen parcels, the smaller soft cheeses stacked around them like couriers to a king.

Raederle bought a bowl of soup from a stall on the southern corner, and sat at a long trestle table with the merchants and farmers, listening to their talk. Much of it was about the weather and the crops, with much humming and hawing over the likelihood of a good summer. She established that the new building was a library, and that books were becoming more and more common, thanks to some new invention the farmers showed great distrust of.

A young woman sat down next to Raederle. She was wearing sensible, mud-splattered breeches, and her long black hair was braided and pinned up. She had a slim, pointed nose, high cheekbones, and clear blue eyes, and she had such a look of Morgon that Raederle knew she must be Hed’s land-ruler or its heir.

“You look like something out of a story,” the woman said.

Raederle blinked, a little startled.

“What story would that be?” she said.

“An old fairy tale, I suppose.” The woman scratched her chin. “Or the story about the High One and his love. She was supposed to have red hair, right?”

“I believe so,” Raederle said, cautiously. “Have you ever met the High One?”

“Three times. He visits about once a decade. And of course he came when my uncle died. He said I’m one of the few land-rulers to look like him. I don’t seem to have inherited his temperament though.” She grinned, a crooked smile that was so familiar it hurt.

“I see.” Raederle smiled. “Tell me, what should I call you?”

“Macha. And should I call you Raederle, or should I pretend it’s only Rae?”

Raederle sighed.

“You can call me Raederle. You may as well. If Morgon is paying attention, he’ll already know I’m here. How did you know it was me?”

“Partially it was the look of you. There’s not many beautiful red-haired women who turn up out of nowhere in old-fashioned dresses. But mostly I knew when you spoke. Your accent is unmistakably old.”

Raederle smiled, and shrugged.

“I was hoping not to attract too much attention, but I should have guessed I’d stick out.”

“I don’t know that anyone else would put two and two together, so Will you stay with us? We would be honoured to have you.”

Raederle blinked, then shook her head.

“Thank you, but no. I’m headed for Lungold, I think.”

“To Lungold? You should speak to Dwyerhed. He travels that route, and I know he’s reliable.”

Macha stood up, and hailed a fat, muscular man sitting at the far end of another long table. He was drinking a beer, and the thick white froth hung dripping from his red beard. He ambled over to them, so tall that Macha only reached his chin, and Raederle his chest.

“Rae here is looking to go to Lungold,” Macha said. “Will you take her with you?”

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Dwyerhed said, thoughtful. “I’m leaving in two days, will you be ready to travel then?”

“That’s fine,” Raederle said, feeling mildly bemused by the rapidity with which her travel plans had been arranged for her. She could simply have shape-shifted and flown there, but it would have been too much a return to her old existence, isolate in the wind and speed of flight. At least this way she would have someone to converse with.

 

Her journey to Lungold was uneventful. Dwyerhed was by no means a stupid man, but he was uncurious about things that didn’t concern him, and evidently Raederle’s origins fell squarely into that category. He was happy simply to talk about the places they passed through and the people they met, to tell her stories of his adventures on the road. He boasted of having dined with Danaan Isig, in the days before his death.

“He’s dead?” Raederle said, a lance of pain shooting through her.

“Well.” Dwyerhed scratched his beard. “Word is, he didn’t exactly die. He just became a tree, and never came back. But his son inherited the land-rule, sure enough, and the High One said that whatever had happened, we shouldn’t expect to see him again, so that’s that.”

Raederle closed her eyes and tried not to cry. Danaan had been kind to her when she had needed it, and his house had been a refuge of warmth and safety. Like poison, despair spread through her. There would never be an end to death. She felt a longing for the cold depths of the ocean, where the tangled forests of seaweed and the rippling shoals of fish required no love of her.

A heavy hand descended on her shoulder.

“Don’t feel too down, lass. He had a good life, with love and happiness, which is as much as any of us can ask for.”

Without waiting for a reply, he began telling her about his own family. He had a wife in Caerweddin, and one child, though they both wanted more. They had a little house, but he was hoping to save enough money to move somewhere larger, with a garden. He immersed her in the mundane details of his life, a glimpse into a life she had never had herself.

That night, lying under the clear stars, Raederle thought back over the years. Memories of Danaan were foremost in her mind, the nights she had spent in his household. He had not approved of her reckless journey to find Morgon, but he had understood her, and that was a quality few enough people in her life had had. As the stars wheeled slowly above her, they came back to her, the pale ghosts of her youth. Rood, Duac, Lyra, Tristan, Astrin, and so many others. They had supported her, loved her, known her. Now she had only Morgon and the wizards, and she had seen neither in over a century.

 

Lungold was thriving. It wasn’t just wizards who lived there, but inventors and artists of all varieties. It had that crackling energy of a place where new ideas are made, new thoughts are formed. She saw more than a few riddle-masters, wearing the blue, red, and gold robes of their profession, many of them hotly debating with artisans or craftsmen. Wizards and witches chattered on street corners and nosed through stalls, looking for ingredients.

Raederle made her way to the college. It was centuries now since its destruction at the hands of Gisteslwichelohm, and it was splendid once more, built of warm yellow stone and stained glass. She could feel the magic soaking through it, a tingle against her skin.

The door opened when she knocked, and a plump, middle-aged witch peered out at her.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for Nun,” Raederle said. “Or Aloil. Are they here?”

“Nun is,” the witch said. “But she doesn’t see many people these days. Who should I tell her is asking?”

“Raederle.”

The woman’s face went white, and her eyes widened.

“Well,” she said. “You’d best come in.”

 

“I did wonder if you were dead,” Nun said, pouring water into the teapot. “There were always those who decided they’d had enough. They’d just fade out of the world, becoming tree or stone or maybe even the air itself. I thought about it myself, but revenge kept me going. And now the world is so interesting, I can’t bear to leave it.”

She settled back in her chair and tamped tobacco down into her pipe, summoning a spark between her fingers to light it.

“I thought about it too,” Raederle said. “I almost went through with it. But I couldn’t leave Morgon. Not because of him, you understand. I think he’d be sad if I died, but he’d endure. He loves the world. It was the part of me that loved him that couldn’t leave. I want to stay with him, live with him, be happy with him. But everyone else I love is dead or dying.”

“I can’t talk you into an acceptance of death,” Nun said dryly. “You’ll have to get there on your own. But it’s not the dying that’s hurting you, it’s the holding on. Let the dead be. They had their time, and it’s done.”

Raederle sighed. Nun’s room was small, just two chairs, a table, and the fireplace. A small lead-paned window looked out over the roofs of Lungold. It was open now, and from the street rose the chattering sounds of the city’s life.

“The world is so beautiful. I had forgotten that. But I’m scared. If I let it in, I’ll have to go through it all again. Death, and grieving, and change. I’m not sure I can.”

“You don’t fear winter, do you?” said Nun, tapping her pipe against the arm of her chair. “When you live as long as we do, the world feels like that. People die, yes, and there are long winters of grief, but spring always comes again.” She smiled, a not entirely kind expression. A riddle for you: who was Temit, and what was he given?”

Raederle rolled her eyes, but answered anyway.

“Temit was a lord of Aum. He had great holdings, rich fields and a beautiful wife. Everything that one could wish for was his. But slowly, he began to lose it all. His wife died of a sickness. His crops failed. He lost his house to debtors, and was turned out. Alone and bereft, he wandered from place to place. One day, as he was begging in a village, a stranger came up to him and asked him why he was begging when he was young and hale. Temit explained what had happened to him, and the stranger listened. When Temit was finished, he nodded and gave him a seed. ‘Plant this,’ the stranger said, and it will grow into something that will help you. ‘But be warned, its growth will be proportional to the labour you put into it.’ With this, the stranger left. Temit took the seed with him, and sought work on his old holdings. Working as a labourer, he managed to save enough money to buy a small farm. He buried the seed in his garden, and took care of it. All this time, he continued working. He met another woman, and they married. They had children, and over time, Temit’s wealth increased. He bought more land, and after several years he had almost all his old holdings back. Still he took care of the seed, now a sapling, and waited for it to finish growing. One day, when he was an old and happy man, and his seed was a flourishing oak tree, he saw the same stranger walking down the road. He invited him to his house, and laid out a feast. At the end of the night, when they were well fed and happy, Temit asked the stranger when the seed would provide its help. The stranger informed him that it already had. The stricture is that hope is the best gift a man can be given.”

“That’s one interpretation,” Nun said. “I would suggest another: hard work gets you everywhere in life.”

Involuntarily, Raederle felt a smile crease the corners of her mouth.

“Did you know,” Nun said, “that Morgon is here?”

“No.” Raederle swallowed. “Has he come to look for me?”

“No, he’s been living here. For about the last fifty years or so. He comes and goes, of course, but he’s been here about a week.”

“I suppose,” Raederle said dryly, “I ought to go and see him.”

 

Morgon’s room was empty, so she stepped in and sat in the chair by the window. He had a window that looked out over one of the small squares, and Raederle spent the afternoon people-watching. There was a small fountain in the middle with a statue of a mermaid which seemed a popular meeting spot. Groups would congregate there and then disappear. One man stayed waiting for two hours before walking away, looking disconsolate. Around the edge of the square were several inns and teahouses, and though Raederle could not hear what their guests were saying, she could see by the wild gesticulations and the uniforms that here were intense arguments between students of Caithnard, wizards and witches, and anyone else who happened to be listening.

It was almost dark when the door opened, and Morgon stepped in. For a moment, he did not see her, as he shrugged off his coat and hung his harp - a small plain one, not the one Deth had made for him - on its hook. Then he turned towards the window.

“Are you real?” he said.

“I believe so,” Raederle said. She tried to smile, and realised that she was crying.

Morgon stepped across the room in two big strides, and dropped to his knees in front of her, reaching up to cup her face with his hands.

“I missed you,” he said.

“I missed you,” she said. “I didn’t realise how much until just this moment.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

Raederle shrugged.

“Truthfully, I still don’t know. If there’s an easy resolution my life, I haven’t found it. But I think I found the start of a path.”

She was crying in earnest now, big hiccuping sobs. She slid off the chair into Morgon’s arms, and he held her a long while.

“What would you like to do next?” he said when at last all her tears were wrung out.

“I think,” she said, “that I would like you to show me the world.”